One can only envision that as time passed from the Ascension, the Apostles started to realize how important it was to document their witness and describe in detail how to live the Christian faith. Only so much could be entrusted to people through teaching, and so we see the New Testament start to take shape.
Structure of relationships under Christ take shape in all of the these works– churches, marriages, slaves, government– as the Apostles fleshed out how believers were to both be citizens of another world, but inhabitants of this one. How do you be “in the world, but not of the world?”
So Peter is going to take us through our responsibilities as believers in this world.
First and foremost, Peter is concerned about our reputation as believers among the Gentiles. Being the first Jew to see a Gentile convert (Acts 9), he has a unique perspective here when he says:
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.1 Peter 2:12
So as an introduction to the topic that he is going to approach, he tells us that we are to maintain an honorable conduct– above reproach– with the culture that is around us. Our good deeds are to be something that the Gentiles cannot help but praise. Peter is then going to describe how this looks.
Submission to Government
The first command is to be subject to the government that you have been born under. We are to live as free men, under the government’s protection and according to the government’s laws. We are to honor the brotherhood and the emperor.
We have a system of government that was born out of a rebellion to the government that we had at the time– the monarch of Briton. We had churches at the time of the Revolution that chose to stay with England based on this and Romans 13 which taught that believers were not to go against the government.
This is also why the Declaration of Independence had to be written the way that it was. It begins with a theological argument– that all men are created equal under God– and then seeks to justify rebelling against the government rather than submitting to it based on the way that the government was treating its colonists.
The problem, for some of the early church fathers, was that God commanded submission while preaching the equality of man in terms of station before God.
As the climate of the times is getting more tense, believers are again faced with the question of what to do about the government. Do we submit, do we resist when we disagree, and how do we know when it crosses the line?
We need to keep in perspective the early church. The first believers were used as human torches, fed to vicious animals and crucified. Even the pilgrims chose to leave rather than take up arms. Many of the heroes of the faith chose to submit to the government rather than attempt to upend it.
They were definitely praying for their leaders (1 Timothy 2), and hoping for the king’s salvation, but that’s a whole different story than taking up arms, and flies in the face of the idea of submitting to the ruler over you.
Submission to Your Master
The word slavery conjures up evil images for Western Civilization. Slave traders, abductions, cruel living conditions and people treated like property.
Slavery in Peter’s day would have looked much more like indentured servants or the slaves of the Old Testament– and some slavery looked like this in the 1600s, though much of it did not. We need to keep in context what Peter is talking about here, because slavery is still with us today, even though it’s much more difficult to spot.
Peter tells those in the First Century church that if they are slaves to a master, that master deserves their respect– regardless of whether they are a good master or an unjust master. The latter is the one that causes a lot of concern and has been used as a bludgeon. Peter explains that true unjust suffering brings praise to the Lord.
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.1 Peter 2:19-21
From here, Peter describes how unjustly Jesus was treated at the hands of the Jews, put to death without having sin. Peter tells us that Jesus is our example. As Jesus did not revile, did not fight back, and endured the cross for us, servants should bear with the unjust master for it is the unjust master that truly shows us to be Christlike… and seems totally wrong.
This is totally opposite a culture that believes that if someone has offended your feelings they deserve to lose their business, reputation or status. Peter’s teaching is to find the injustice to be something to find glory in and hearkens back to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus told those that assembled that if they were to be like Him they should expect persecution.
Those that followed hard after God in the Bible do not all have records of peaceful deaths. Just look through Hebrews 11 and then the Foxes’ book of Martyrs and see the result of submission to those in authority over you. It is not a pretty picture in terms of this life.
But Peter calls us beyond that, to the righteousness that is worked in us having endured the suffering– just like Jesus endured the suffering, despised the shame, but through it brought salvation to the world.
Submission to Husbands
With the bridge “likewise” we see that Peter wants us to carry forward the idea of being subject to masters to the husband/wife dynamic. So if we were to take this literally, we could infer: Wives, be subject to your own husbands, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.
And that squares with 1 Peter 3:1 where the Apostle tells wives that they should be subject to their own husbands, such that if even if they are not believers they can be won without a word because of their wife’s conduct.
Jesus once told his Apostles that Moses allowed for divorce because husbands hearts were hard which some have taken to mean that husbands would choose to kill their wives rather than live with them if divorce was not an option. Paul told the first century church or Corinth that if a couple separated they should see to come back together. Even Solomon had words to say to the man who married a woman that had poor qualities, teaching that it was better to live in a corner of a house or the desert! So it is not like the first century husbands were the greatest men.
Yet Peter and Paul both focus on the power of the praying wife to impact the household and her husband. Rather than encourage the wife to resist her husband, remind him frequently about his sin and refuse to obey the unjust command, Peter tells this wife to pray for her husband, cultivate a positive heart attitude, and to win her husband by her pure conduct.
He then provides a clarification and an illustration.
The clarification goes something like this: Don’t focus on the external things that are easy (clothing, makeup, hair), but focus on your heart attitude– “The hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” He then reminds the wives that this is what was positive in the life of Sarah.
For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.1 Peter 3:5-6
So when did Sarah call Abraham “lord”? When she was told by God that she would give birth to Isaac. Peter focuses the wife on the account of the prophecy of the birth of Isaac. Abraham had rushed into the tent and commanded to Sarah that she prepare some bread for the three visitors while he went out and got a young man to grill up some meat and he grabbed some milk. As she’s preparing the food in the tent and overhears the prophecy, she laughs and comments to herself that she is unable to have children and that Abraham, her lord/master/husband is old.
Grasp the situation and where Sarah is when she makes this comment. She could have said anything about Abraham when talking to herself, and yet to herself she referred to her husband as “lord/master”.
This goes along exactly with what Peter said about the inner person and focus of the wife. Peter is saying it’s not enough to be externally righteous, but to have an internal heart attitude that is righteous. It is this that will win over the husband that does not obey the word.
As you can see, it’s not dependent on whether the husband honors you correctly or is a believer. The wife is to cultivate inner beauty and be subject to her husband regardless.
Honor Your Wives
Peter does not leave this section without addressing the husbands, and he ties this together with the same “likewise” that he used in introducing the wives, so he wants you to keep in mind the commands that he gave just above– that the hidden person of the heart is that which is most pleasing to God.
God is telling the husband that he is to live with his wife showing her honor, as one that is not in authority over you, and yet equal to you. If the husband chooses not to do so, his prayers may be hindered– meaning that God takes seriously that the husband honors his wife.
This goes for whether your wife is good or unjust. It applies and is not dependent on your wife’s submission to your authority. It is given to you to honor her and live with her in an understanding way regardless of whether or not she’s a believer or is living what was commanded to her above.
Unlike the wife, he is not instructed to be subject to his wife, but in telling him to honor her God is saying that she is a willing equal rather than an inferior being. This goes to the special relationship between husband and wife. We don’t find the master being told to honor the slave or the emperor being told to honor the subject, but the husband is to honor the wife.
Suffering Is To Be Expected
Peter concludes this passage stating that we should expect suffering. He implies that the Christian life is one of suffering, and instead of expecting to be free from it, our life in Christ may be defined by it, just as Christ’s life was.
Peter’s focus is on the next life, not this one. So all of his commands and challenges have everything to do with the next life, and not necessarily with justice in this life. To him, he wants the approval of the Creator above all things. He wants our conduct to be pure and righteous so that standing before God we have a pure reputation– let the other be the sinner and give an account.
This is different than our culture of individualism, of always being the one in the right and fighting for our rights, and explains why teachings on submission are met with derision, misinterpretation and the like. When Biblical teaching runs counter to our beliefs, we’re left either justifying why we do what we do, or attempting to say that the Scripture says something it does not.